This Day in Jewish History

1952: The Man Who Made Ultimate Frisbee a 'Sport' Is Born

In his move from anti-materialistic joy to bare-fanged Hollywood, Joel Silver also produced Matrix, Lethal Weapon, and some Die Hard movies.

Producer Joel Silver arriving at the UK premiere of "Nice Guys", central London, Britain, May 19, 2016. He is wearing facial hair, a dark blue suit, light blue shirt, and burgundy tie and pocket-handkerchief.
Peter Nicholls, Reuters

July 14, 1952, is the birthdate of Joel Silver, who as a young man took the leading role in spreading the game of Ultimate Frisbee and turning it into a competitive – though not overly so – sport. Later he became one of Hollywood’s most successful producers, the man behind the “Lethal Weapon” franchise and the first two entries in the “Die Hard” series, as well as the producer of the three “Matrix” movies.

Along the way, the boy who brought the world a graceful, antimaterialist and – strange as it may sound – ironic game became one of the movie industry’s most aggressive, extravagant and hot-tempered executives – which is saying a lot.

Joel Silver was born and raised in South Orange, New Jersey, to a father who worked in public relations and a journalist mother. He attended Columbia High School, the town’s public secondary school, but in the summer of 1968 he went to summer school at Mount Hermon Prep School in Massachusetts. It was there that a dorm counselor named Jared Kass, who was studying during the year at nearby Amherst College, taught the boys on his floor a game he had learned at Amherst.

The game incorporated elements of American football, basketball and soccer, but instead of a ball it employed a Frisbee, the name of the plastic disc manufactured by the Wham-O company that slices smoothly through the air when properly tossed.

In Frisbee football, as the Amherst men called it, players would score goals by moving the disc up and down the field, passing it by flicking it rather than running with it.

Decades later, Kass told an interviewer how, at Amherst, “I remember one time running for a pass and leaping up in the air and feeling the Frisbee making it into my hand and feeling the perfect synchrony and the joy of the moment, and as I landed I said to myself, ‘This is the ultimate game! This is the ultimate game!’”

Equipment for 'Ultimate': One Frisbee

That’s apparently how Joel Silver felt too, and when he returned to New Jersey for 11th grade, he brought Frisbee football with him and taught it to his colleagues on the student council and at the school newspaper.

They were the school’s cool kids, blessed with a surfeit of irony and wit, who found the satisfaction in playing a game that required virtually no equipment, no budget and no violence. So when Silver proposed, in the student council that fall, “that a committee be formed to investigate the possibility of introducing Frisbee into the high school curriculum,” his fellow legislators played along with the joke and adopted the motion.

In the meantime, Silver and his friends Bernard “Buzzy” Hellring and Jonny Hines began formulating rules for the game, so that by the 1970 school year, the gospel of what was soon dubbed Ultimate Frisbee had begun to spread among other schools in suburban New Jersey, and the game began to be played on an intramural basis. (Today the game is called simply Ultimate, as the standard disc used is manufactured by Discraft, rather than Wham-O, whose Frisbee is a trademarked name.)

Hellring, who was editor of the school paper, wrote facetious articles about the supposed global spread of the game, one of which quoted a nonexistent piece in Time magazine proposing that the United States and  Soviet Union begin “to settle all disputes between the two with Frisbees instead of missiles.”   

Highlights from five games on the first day of play at the 2015 D-I College Championships in Milwaukee, Wisc. YouTube

Ultimate did ultimately spread around the world, and although it has yet to be named an Olympic sport, it is played by millions of people – students, amateurs and professionals – and is included in the International World Games, a quadrennial event for non-Olympic sports.

Former Columbia Ultimate players still return to the school each year on the eve of Thanksgiving for an alumni game on the student parking lot, and Silver has been known to show up. But these days he lives on the opposite coast – where he has homes in Brentwood (valued at $40 million in 2013) and on Malibu’s Carbon Beach (valued at up to $35 million) – when he’s not visiting Auldbrass, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed, 326-acre plantation in South Carolina that he’s been restoring since he bought it in 1986.

A man plays a frisbee throwing video game with the Oculus Rift VR headset at the E3 Electronic Expo in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 14, 2016
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters